The following blog was written by Iain Ratter, a digitiser in the Herbarium.

Since 2021 we have increased our digitisation capacity with the goal of getting to 1 million specimens imaged by Autumn 2024. Each digitiser is assigned a family of plants to work through. This series of blogs will spotlight the families that have been completed by a member of the team.

There are few plant families more instantly recognisable than the Orchidaceae. They are admired widely for their beauty, scent, and abundance, with orchids competing fiercely with Asteraceae for the title of most diverse plant family. What many people do not appreciate however, is that orchids owe their success to the fact they are perhaps the most unscrupulous and conniving of all the plant families.

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Specimen of Ophrys apifera Huds., a Bee Orchid, collected in 2021 as part of the Darwin Tree of Life Project. E01152247

Unlike most other angiosperms, orchid flowers exhibit bilateral symmetry and with that adaptation come unique opportunities for mischief. The peculiar and intricate flowers have been adjusted and refashioned so many times that today’s orchids exhibit a dizzying array of pollination strategies most involving mimicry. Indeed, whilst many families have a few bad apples scamming their pollinators with fake rewards, the duplicitous orchids are masters of this racket, with nearly a third of all orchids masquerading as legitimate nectar vendors. And this is not to mention the other fraudulent schemes that orchids employ, including but not limited to; mimicking pollinator shelter, mimicking pollinator antagonists, mimicking pollinator prey and even mimicking pollinators of the opposite sex.

Orchids don’t just limit their illicit activities to fraud; some species are also prolific parasites Many fungi species form mutualistic relationships with plants, entwining their hyphae and roots to help each other transport and take up nutrients in mycorrhizal networks. Orchids, unwilling to provide their offspring with a bulb containing adequate nutrients, plunder these networks. All young orchids are obligate parasites on mycorrhizal fungi and some, like Monotropa and Corallorhiza, never bother to photosynthesise in their lives.

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Two specimens of Corallorhiza trifida, collected in Turkey in 1976. This species is a myco-heterotroph and is partially parasitic. E00709482 and E00709483

Orchids also hybridise readily- their greatest crime – as it makes them a nightmare for taxonomists, horticulturalists, and herbarium digitisers.

Unfortunately for humanity, these traits are relatively recent discoveries, and Orchids have already wormed their way into our hearts and minds. Singapore, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, Belize, Colombia, and Panama all have orchids as their national flower, and they are cultivated widely for their beauty and scent. Some genera, such as Orchis and Vanilla, are used as food stuffs in the form of salep (a type of flour made from their tubers) and, of course, vanilla flavouring.

Our collections at Edinburgh

Prior to digitisation we had records for 14,271 specimens, following it completion we now have records for 30,284 specimens. We hold 815 type specimens of Orchidaceae.

Our collections of Orchidaceae can be viewed here.

Top 5 regions

We hold specimens of Orchidaceae from every herbarium region, which reflects the global distribution of the family.

No. of SpecimensHerbarium Filing Region
3,476Europe excl. Britain and Ireland
3,095Britain and Ireland
2,985Inner China, Korea and Taiwan
2,817Cultivated
2,236New Guinea

Top 5 Genera

No. of SpecimensGenus
2,004Dendrobium
1,821Orchis
1,421Habenaria
1,352Dactylorhiza
1,209Bulbophyllum

Orchidaceae holds one of our oldest specimens, a Cypripedium montanum Douglas ex Lindl., collected by David Krieg in Maryland, USA, in 1698

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Cypripedium montanum collected in USA in 1698 (E00849910)

Fun facts

A persistent myth claims orchids take their name from a nymph in classical mythology. In truth, orchids take their name from the ancient Greek for testicle (órkhis), a reference to the distinctively shaped twin tubers of some Orchis species.

During the Victorian period, Europe was gripped by an “orchidelirium” similar to the tulip mania of the Dutch Golden Age. Collectors would travel to all four corners of the globe in search of new and exotic varieties and would go to extreme lengths to sabotage each other’s collections. Vandalism and theft were common. Rare orchid bulbs stolen from Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden multiple times, and it was strongly suspected the culprit(s) were members of the “moneyed class”, scandalous. Illicit trade and poaching of orchids continue to be a problem to this day.

The oldest known orchid is Succinanthera baltica which is known from an anther cap sealed in 40–55-million-year-old amber. However, molecular clock methods indicate orchids may have arisen as early 76 to 84 million years ago making them contemporaneous with the last non-avian dinosaurs.